Could ECT be effective in autism?

Med Hypotheses. 2004;63(3):371-6. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2004.03.023.


Autism is increasingly diagnosed, but therapeutic options are limited in many children. ECT is considered as a safe, effective, and life-saving treatment in people of all ages who suffer from affective disorders, acute psychosis, and, in particular, catatonia. There are recent speculations that certain types of autism may be the earliest expression of catatonia and that both disorders have identical risk factors. Therefore, ECT may improve autism and, if started early enough, may prevent further development of autistic symptoms in some children. The use of ECT in autism has never been systematically assessed. There have been two large ECT studies in children in the 1940s. Autism was not assessed in these studies because the autistic syndrome was just then being recognized as a separate entity. Findings from these studies add little to the hypothesis that ECT may be effective in autistic children, but attest to the safety and feasibility of ECT in children. Another limitation is the use of older ECT techniques. What may well be the greatest deterrent to use ECT in autism is widespread anti- ECT sentiment not only among the public but within the medical community as well. All child specialists--psychiatrists, neurologists, psychologists, and developmental pediatricians--should independently review the feasibility, potential, and risk of using ECT in autism. Unless anti-ECT prejudice can be overcome, it is unlikely that any ECT trial in autism is forthcoming. Research areas that may support the hypothesis that ECT is effective in autism should be pursued. First, any link between autism and catatonia should be further explored in clinical and biochemical studies. A GABA theory of autism and catatonia may be pivotal. Second, the role of abnormal GABAA receptor subunit genes in autism and catatonia should be further assessed. Candidate loci for autism and catatonia have been found on the long arm of chromosome 15 where three GABAA receptor subunits genes are located. The GABAA receptor beta 3 subunit gene (GABRB3) was the leading candidate gene for a subgroup of autism in two independent studies. Third, a novel genetic mouse model of autism should be tested. Mutant mice with a targeted deletion of the GABRB3 gene have a complete deficit of the beta 3 subunit of the GABAA receptor. This knockout mouse model seems promising to study developmental effects of altered GABAA receptor function as it relates to certain developmental disorders including autism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / therapy*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy / adverse effects
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy / methods*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Treatment Outcome